Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election day is here

One of the big misconceptions of American presidential politics is the tendency to overestimate the importance of 'swing voters' or 'independents.' The conventional wisdom talks as if the American electorate includes a finite number of voters, that there is a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and that the winner is the candidate who persuades the undecided, so-called independent block. In this misconception, the key numbers determining the winner are seen as the percentage of undecideds who go for either candidate.

The truth in recent elections has been far different. Because not every voting-eligible American votes, the electorate is best conceived as infinite, not finite. The big number to look at is not any percentage, like the pre-election polls focus on. Instead, look at the absolute numbers. The presidency is won by turning out voters. The real 'undecideds,' then, are not those of us undecided about who to vote for, but those of us undecided about whether to vote at all.

In recent elections the Republicans have dominated the 'get out the vote' battle, mostly because of the opportunity for massive mobilization that churches offer conservatives.

This election could turn out different, however. Reports are that Sen. Obama has a well-organized get-out-the-vote campaign.

One thing is sure: The polls will not reflect the final vote percentages. They are not great at picking the final winner. This is because the polls reflect percentages, not absolute numbers. They reflect the people likely to go to the polls, and have nothing to say about where the election is won: the people unlikely to go to the polls, and who draws the greater number of them.

So tonight, while others look at the percentages, I will be most concerned with the absolute numbers. Which candidate draws people to the polls? This will decide it.

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